Hon. Art Eggleton:
Honourable senators, last week, Senator Enverga gave a very glowing endorsement of this bill. When the government first announced in 2011 their intention to create a national park in the Rouge Valley, there was a lot of excitement. Community members, organizations and local politicians that had campaigned for over 30 years to protect this area rejoiced at the time. But just a few short years later, it is becoming painfully clear that the joy has been dashed.
Widespread opposition has grown and at a fever pitch, not at the idea of the park itself, but to the federal government’s plan. There was opposition from the province of Ontario, from municipalities and from the very community organizations that have for so long advocated for the creation of a national park.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has said this bill needs a rewrite. The Friends of Rouge Valley Watershed, Environmental Defence, STORM Coalition, Nature Canada, and Ontario Nature — all these organizations do not support how this bill is currently drafted. The only one that seems happy about the bill’s approach is the federal government.
This is a very unfortunate situation, honourable senators. National parks bring much value to Canadians. They provide families opportunities to learn about and enjoy the wonders of nature. They provide a great place to explore, unwind and get away from our busy lives. National parks contribute to our national and cultural identity, and have in many ways contributed to our historical narrative as a country.
National parks provide important environmental and ecological protection. They maintain ecosystems and protect at- risk species. National parks also protect our forests that help alleviate our carbon footprint, which is necessary to combat climate change.
National parks also have an important economic imprint. They increase tourism and create jobs, which are essential for a healthy and diversified economy. A 2011 study by Canadian Parks Council found that national parks generate some $4.6 billion to our gross national product.
It is unfortunate that such opposition exists towards this government’s plan. It is unfortunate that the government has not listened to these concerns. Many organizations have written to the government expressing their concerns only to be met with silence. Maybe Senator Enverga will listen to them.
Witnesses at the house committee expressed their concerns and provided substantial recommendations, but nothing was done. The opposition parties in the other place brought forward some 18 amendments to strengthen this bill. They were all rejected.
Honourable senators, what are the concerns? There are many, but I want to focus on three.
First, the government did not listen to the community on the size of the park. The proposed size of the park is only 58 square kilometres. This is much smaller than the community had wanted. They wanted the park to be 100 square kilometres, which would link Lake Ontario to the heart of Oak Ridges Moraine. This land is part of the mixed woodland plain in the Carolinian forest zones of southern Ontario that have significant biological diversity and many endangered species. Also, much of the land in this larger area is already federal land. It makes no sense not to include it. A 100- square-kilometre park would create a much more dynamic park and do a much better job of protecting this important ecological area.
The second major concern is the lack of environmental assurances in the legislation. What is baffling is that in each and every national park legislation, there is a specific clause that ensures environmental stewardship, but not in this one. That normal clause that you see says:
. . . a set of ecological integrity objectives and indicators and provisions for resource protection and restoration, zoning, visitor use, public awareness and performance evaluation, which shall be tabled in each House of Parliament.
The key phrase here, honourable senators, is “ecological integrity.”
In plain language, ecosystems have integrity when they have their native components intact, including: abiotic components (the physical elements, e.g. water, rocks), biodiversity (the composition and abundance of species and communities in an ecosystem. . .
Parks Canada’s objective by law for all of their national parks is to:
. . . allow people to enjoy national parks as special places without damaging their integrity.
To do this, Parks Canada creates an ecosystem management plan that has eight guiding principles ranging from “conservation strategies should maintain or restore key ecological processes that reflect their natural condition” to “human use and facilities should be compatible with park ecosystem protection in type, amount and timing.” Honourable senators, that clause and that high standard are not in this bill. Other bills have it, but not this one. Instead there is a very vague statement in clause 6. It states:
The Minister must, in the management of the Park, take into consideration the protection of its natural ecosystems and cultural landscapes and the maintenance of its native wildlife and of the health of those ecosystems.
“Take into consideration,” honourable senators? That’s all it says. That’s a very weak statement and it is certainly not a plan.
The term “ecological health” is not defined in the legislation. What does it mean? No one knows exactly. We know what the previous terms they’ve used mean, but they’re changing it. Why?
Why is this a problem? Honourable senators, as we all know, definitions are put in bills for a very good reason. Ministers change; their priorities change. We put definitions in to restrict ministers’ discretion, to ensure the intent of the legislation is followed and will not be derailed.
As the wording currently stands, the minister has the discretion to go against the best interests of the park. He could go against the advice of ecologists, residents and other levels of government; he just has to take their thoughts into consideration.
Honourable senators, due to this lax environmental commitment, the Government of Ontario has now pulled its support for the park. That’s a very important matter, because Ontario currently controls 22 square kilometres, or 44 per cent, of this proposed 58 square kilometres of land that make up the current plan for the park.
People thought they were getting 100 square kilometres. The land is there to do it. The government is now proposing 58 square kilometres, but 44 per cent of that is owned by the province, and they’ve pulled out. What kind of a national park is this? You’ve got to be joking. What kind of a national park? They simply will not transfer the land.
Ontario Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid used this phrase; he called the proposal “a joke of a park.” This is the provincial government, which owns 44 per cent of the land they want to have as a national park.
He further said that he won’t be recommending, nor will the province consider, transferring these lands at any time until they have the assurances they need with regard to environmental integrity. Minister Duguid said:
Under current provincial laws and regulations, Ontario’s portion of the proposed park receives a high degree of environmental protection. Our government has always been a strong supporter of the Rouge National Urban Park, but will not allow weaker laws to govern the lands.
That is from a minister of the Government of Ontario.
Now, if Ontario doesn’t transfer this land, the park will be so small and dispersed that it will be just a shadow of a park. How can we be proud of that? How can we get excited about that?
The third concern is in clause 8. It says that the minister may appoint an advisory committee on the management of the park. But, honourable senators, that also means the minister may not appoint an advisory committee, and may not hear from outside voices with immense experience and expertise that would help maintain the park’s public integrity and environmental stewardship. Perhaps if the government had a better environmental track record, we would feel better if the minister decided not to listen to outside voices; but we know that this is a government that has repeatedly failed on the environment, so I don’t have a lot of confidence.
In conclusion, honourable senators, this should have been a slam dunk. This should have been a slam dunk for the federal government. How could they possibly botch up a national park? Everyone was on board, but it has turned into a plan that many are not happy with. Perhaps the witnesses, when this gets to committee, will alleviate these concerns. I’m open to what they have to say, and I hope my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will be open to their suggestions as well.